Bernie Sanders’ embrace of an endorsement by Joe Rogan drew instant criticism from some corners of the transgender community because of the podcast host’s use of gay slurs and position on trans issues.
Like many Twitter-centric controversies, the debate quickly blew up and then became circular, with Bernie foes jumping on the bandwagon—and other Democrats fuming that the uproar was another example of left-wing self-sabotage.
It began when the Vermont senator's campaign tweeted out a video clip Thursday of Rogan saying he will “probably vote for Bernie.” The endorsement of a wildly popular public figure—Rogan’s podcast is the second-most downloaded on iTunes, and his YouTube channel has more than 7 million subscribers—would usually be cause for celebration.
But the tweet triggered backlash, even among some of Sanders’ supporters.
“I really like Bernie and am disappointed to see the campaign boost Rogan, who has made some very anti-trans comments,” tweeted trans writer Alexis Goldstein. “I really hope the campaign reconsiders.”
Rogan’s style is brash, unfiltered, and often provocative. A former UFC commentator, he has been slammed for calling athletes “faggots” and using the word “gay” as an insult. While he has previously claimed to be “100% in favor of transgender people,” he has come out against the use of puberty blockers in transgender youth and railed against trans women competing in women’s sports.
In a 2013 podcast episode, Rogan said transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox was “not really a she.”
“She's a transgender, post-op person,” he told a co-host who asked about “that tranny.” “The operation doesn't shave down your bone density. It doesn't change.”
“You're a fucking man. That's a man, OK?” he continued. “I don't care if you don't have a dick any more.”
Because of comments like this, a number of trans people took to Twitter to say they were uncomfortable with Sanders touting Rogan’s endorsement.
“Right now states are moving to criminalize doctors who provide life saving healthcare to trans children,” tweeted Maria Montano. “Joe Rogan supports this and shares that view with his audience. This will lead to the death of many trans kids. Is this endorsement really worth it?”
Late Friday afternoon, the Human Rights Campaign issued a statement calling on Sanders to reconsider the endorsement, citing Rogan's comments about transgender people, gay men, women, people of color and “countless marginalized groups.”
“We should always be willing to educate individuals who operate from a place of bias but we should not directly or indirectly validate or celebrate them,” President Alphonso David said.
Sanders' camp responded to the controversy with a statement of their own, saying that “sharing a big tent requires including those who do not share every one of our beliefs, while always making clear that we will never compromise our values.”
“The truth is that by standing together in solidarity, we share the values of love and respect that will move us in the direction of a more humane, more equal world,” press secretary Briahna Joy Gray said.
The Daily Beast reached out to four other LGBTQ organizations about the endorsement; none elected to comment. And some trans people said they welcomed Rogan’s endorsement, even if they did not like his beliefs, because it meant Sanders' views were reaching a different demographic.
“I’m black and trans and a woman. Don’t like Joe Rogan,” one wrote. “But I’m also not stupid, and I understand that he is gonna exist whether I like him or not. I’d rather have his dumb fans with us than against us. Now, can all the cishet white neolibs stop pretending to care what I feel?”
Some Democrats argued they did not have a problem with Rogan’s endorsement, just Sanders’ decision to amplify it; others claimed it would be impossible to amplify Rogan to begin with. Still others said Sanders’ tweet was simply good politicking—the type of tent expansion that Democrats would need if they wanted to build a coalition of voters to beat Trump.
Sanders made a similar “big tent” appeal in 2017, when he campaigned with Heath Mello, a Nebraska mayoral candidate with a history of supporting anti-abortion laws. NARAL and other women’s rights groups criticized Sanders for the decision, but the senator stayed firm. “I think you just can't exclude people who disagree with us on one issue,” he told NPR at the time.
Sanders has long been a champion of LGBTQ rights, and received a 100 percent positive score on the Human Rights Campaign’s most recent congressional scorecard. His decades-long record on gay rights distinguished him from Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary, where he highlighted his opposition to the the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and Bill Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the military.
But Sanders was also recently criticized for being one of the only Democratic primary candidates not to attend two LGBTQ presidential forums. “I think it was a huge misstep on his part,” forum host Angelica Ross told The Guardian at the time. “And I’m not here for any of the excuses. I say: ‘Make it up to me. Make it up to us.’”
Rogan, meanwhile, has been known to make inflammatory comments and promote outlandish conspiracy theories, and has hosted right-wing figures like Milo Yiannopoulos, Alex Jones, and Stephen Crowder on his podcast. As debate swirled about his endorsement on Friday, clips surfaced of Rogan using the n-word and comparing a black neighborhood to Planet of The Apes. In another, he joked about Hillary Clinton being paid to give blowjobs.
Perhaps it was unsurprising, then, that even right-wing fire-starter Ben Shapiro tried to hitch his wagon to the viral Twitter train.
“By the way, if the logic is going to be that anyone I endorse is now cast into the outer realm, I also endorse Bernie and plan to vote for him in the California primary,” the fellow podcast host tweeted.